Sitting in my new PJs this bitterly cold December morning, about to start my meditation, I was wondering how can I imagine being all blissed out in the Pure Land of Heruka and Vajrayogini (Keajra) when my unhoused neighbors are freezing half to death outside on the streets and piglets are having their tails cut off while conscious?
The Pure Land cannot just be an extension of my privilege – that is, “I have a relatively comfy life and I’d like it to continue and improve in Keajra when I die, please!” We can’t get to Keajra out of attachment to the status quo. The Pure Land only arises from our utter distaste (as Geshe Kelsang puts it) for samsara’s evil dealings, and a heart broken into 1,000 pieces (like Avalokiteshvara 1,000 arms) from witnessing others’ suffering. `
The bliss of the Pure Land doesn’t actually come from all those endless cool objects of enjoyment, but from being in the position to effortlessly free everyone from samsara because our mind just is bliss and emptiness. The enjoyments are simply a means to an end. Hence this verse from the Heruka sadhana:
I offer to you, synthesis of all Buddhas of the ten directions, all my daily enjoyments – eating, drinking and enjoying any other objects of desire. May I quickly attain enlightenment and become like you so that I will effortlessly benefit all living beings.
I have a friend here in Denver called Shala, who is still in the middle of (hands down, no competition) the toughest year of her life working as an ICU nurse with COVID patients. What is as terrible in some ways as the lonely choking deaths she has witnessed is her frustration at the administrators at all levels who cannot or will not do a decent job of supporting the frontline healthcare workers, leading not just to their exhaustion and lack of protection but to unnecessary sentinel patient events.
How does she get past this to carry on, month after month, I asked her. The answer is by remembering renunciation, focusing directly on the patients (trying to make them as peaceful and comfortable as she personally can), and constantly asking the Buddhas to bless the situation.
Shala has given me a lot to think about. In our day to day work lives (if we’re lucky enough to still have one of those), including running a meditation center or another non-profit (which some of you do), it’s easy for us to get annoyed with our co-workers or managers if we feel that we are dependent on them for success. To avoid this at work (or indeed wherever things are not working out), we need the fearlessness to look at our own actual painful situation — including our own frustrations and griefs and shame and trauma and rage — and sit with these long enough to develop renunciation.
Samsara’s job is to make us suffer. We are not “wholeheartedly accepting” suffering (as in the necessary practice of patient acceptance) if we are at the same time brushing it off as quickly as we can. It doesn’t work to bypass samsara’s nature, saying “Oh yes, I know! Samsara is bad!” while being prepared to keep living with it and making it work — we have to detest it very deeply, have a lifelong grudge, if we are to muster sufficient activity to abolish it.
All this of course done within the framework of identifying ourselves with the vast sky of our limitless potential, not the dark clouds of our delusions and mistaken appearances. We’re the sky looking at the thunder, who knows full well that the sky is still alright, that no thunder can ever harm it.
We are not inherently impure or ordinary or even suffering! Holding to that is identifying ourself incorrectly, as Geshe Kelsang explains so clearly in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra(which would be a wonderful book to dust off and read this month). Which is just as well because it means that we can change.
We also need always to keep our eye on the ball by staying directly and personally focused on the living beings we’re trying to help in our area, not on the faults of our team and/or others who are seemingly sabotaging our best efforts. This compassion and love will go a long way to protecting us from daily anger (not to mention self-pity).
And we are not talking just, “Oh that’s a shame!”, but about a compassion that finds the suffering of others unbearable and so will keep us going day after day for their sake, without becoming mentally side-tracked or full of inertia by taking everything personally.
Thirdly, we need to channel the frustration at things not going as well as we would like (eg, due to inefficiency, bad management, selfishness, prejudice, disharmony etc) into the determination to attain enlightenment as quickly as we possibly can. Because that way we can DIRECTLY help each and every living being every day through our blessings and emanations (bypassing all management, lol). Developing pure view and practicing being in the Pure Land — where there is “not even the name of mistaken impure appearance” — is a must if we are to do this skillfully.
Transforming our families
I am currently part of a family of six cats. Over two months ago, a mom arrived with five tiny new cats, and they’ve grown up mainly knowing the world of me and my apartment/jungle-playground. For a brief moment in their endless samsaric lives, and unlike the vast majority of other animals, they have the karma to be wanted. They have a devoted cat mom and sympathetic human relatives wanting to take care of them, offering them food, warmth, companionship, and love. They are even lined up for great homes in other families.
But as I was watching them this morning while they slumbered next to me, it struck me quite deeply that, even if they get to spend the next 16 or so years in relative comfort and security, these innocent trusting little folk are at some point going to become sick, old, and dead. And then what? Then where?
These few months are a snapshot in time, a vanishing moment given the endless suffering they’ve already been through and the endless suffering that awaits them. My heart was breaking when I looked not just at today’s challenges (for example, Kendrick feeling sad and hungry because he simply can’t abide cat food, and who can blame him), but the fact that this discomfort is NOTHING compared with the rest of it. And the fact that he doesn’t even know that, nor can do anything about it. Looking at me with that tilted kitten head, he doesn’t even know how to plead with me not to forget him, not to let him suffer — not now, not ever.*
It is bad enough just contemplating what lies in store for these six individuals, but that of course gets me thinking about all my family, blood related or otherwise, furry or fur-less. And everyone else in the six realms of samsara’s wasteland.
Turning the pain into power
I have seen the promised land!
So said Martin Luther King Jr – and did he keep going, I was wondering, despite endless odds, through the power of his faith and imagination? Was he already in some sense in the Pure Land, with the courage and power to lead others to that state? Do we have to be seeing the world that we want to create? I would say, Yes, we do.
Great compassion will be the new normal.
So said Gen Losang in the Summer. The ONLY solution we really have to this year and to every other terrible year is to become a Buddha as quickly as possible for the sake of others. And the only way to do that is to practice being a Buddha in the Pure Land now, making sure that Kendrick and everyone else is a mere aspect of our mind of bliss and emptiness, never separated from us, never again forgotten. For once we are in the outer or inner Pure Land of Heruka, this can happen fast for all our friends:
Through the wheel of sharp weapons of the exalted wisdom of bliss and emptiness, Circling throughout the space of the minds of sentient beings until the end of the aeon, Cutting away the demon of self-grasping, the root of samsara, May definitive Heruka be victorious. ~ The New Essence of Vajrayana
Over to you. What does the Pure Land mean to you? How are you going to spend Heruka and Vajrayogini month?
*Postscript: Kendrick died at 3am on Christmas day after a rapid decline.💔
He provides another compelling reason why not to feel a moment’s survivor’s guilt about hanging out in the Pure Land, given that I can do almost nothing for him while identified as an ordinary being. However, prayers work, so please let’s pray for this small cat and all other animals, whether beloved companions or hitherto completely unwanted.
Happy Buddha’s Enlightenment Day! April 15th is another big holy(i)day for Kadampa Buddhists, marking the anniversary of Buddha Shakyamuni demonstrating the attainment of enlightenment in 589 B.C.E. I thought I’d take advantage of the opportunity to say something short and simple about what Buddha’s enlightenment means to me.
Buddha Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha
For sure, on Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, we remember the kindness of the historical Buddha, the one everyone has heard of, the one who started his life as Prince Siddhartha and became known as Buddha Shakyamuni. Without his appearing in our world to give teachings, there would be no Buddhism or Buddhist meditation in our lives today. You can read his inspiring life story in Introduction to Buddhism.
Faith in our own potential
As a Buddhist, I have faith or confidence in the Founder of Buddhism, Buddha Shakyamuni — faith in his enlightened nature of universal compassion and omniscient wisdom, in his teachings, in his example. But effective faith in Buddha necessitates faith in our own enlightened potential. He only appeared in this world to teach us Buddhism because he knew we could all be just like him, that we already had within us the seeds of enlightenment. In fact, Buddha Shakyamuni is just one of countless Buddhas – those who have perfected their qualities until they cannot be perfected further, out of a compassion that yearns for the capacity to free every single living being from suffering.
The imperative to become enlightened
As I sit here with my dying cat Nelson, (whom I’ve had to join in the yard to write this as he wants to go outside in accordance with his feral upbringing,) there is an imperative to become enlightened for his sake. If every cat is as adorable as he is, which they are, if that is possible, which it is, then samsaric suffering is truly brutal, pervasive and heart-breaking. Nelson is only a year and a half old, but already has a tumor that is taking up half his small body. He hasn’t eaten in days, and each day drinks less, trundles around less, suffers more. Right now he is just lying here under the table, bravely and uncomplainingly accepting his fate, as animals seem to do so much better than us. He is still managing a faint purr when I reach down to stroke him.
What did Nelson do to deserve this? As a person, nothing. He is naturally pure, like all of us. His ignorance, his real enemy, drove him to engage in deluded actions that have led to this. He needs, like all of us, to purify his mind of suffering and all its causes (ignorance, delusions, and karma) so that he never has to take another samsaric rebirth again. How am I going to help him do that if I am just an ordinary person who cannot even speak the language of cats, or read his mind, or follow him from life to life? I love him and I want to protect him. I can perhaps give him some temporary love and protection for the days or weeks he remains with me here, but that is nowhere near enough. I cannot settle for that. I want to give him peace by blessing his mind all the time, and as soon as he is in a human body I want to show him how to end mistaken appearances and suffering once and for all. I want to set the example that Buddha Shakyamuni and many other great Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have set for me.
That is a lot for me to accomplish even for one small cat, so what about my other cat, also joining us here at the table for a spell, not in pain but still in a cat’s body? And what about the feral cat colony I discovered last month, one of whose members is the spitting image of Nelson and no doubt a relative, that live a mile down the road? And what about everybody else?!
Sadness won’t do it, although it can be an impetus. I need to attain enlightenment.
Enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance, and its function is to bestow mental peace on each and every living being every day.
That is what we need. And we need it fast.
That wish alone dissolves away my sadness and helplessness and leaves me blissful and energized. Compassion is bliss, according to Buddha’s Tantric teachings. One minute sad for Nelson, the next blissed out, that’s how it works. Nelson is purring in agreement. (I like to think of his purrs as him tuning into Buddha’s omniscient wisdom, enlightened mind, blessings.*) He would tell me, if he could, that he would far rather I be blissful than sad because I’m far better at helping him feel peaceful if I am feeling that way myself. Our mental states are catching. Blessings are contagious.
“As much as I know intellectually that bodhichitta is more beneficial, I don’t really feel it in my heart. For me the idea of becoming a Buddha to benefit others seems very abstract, compared to directly helping beings now. Have any of you got any advice on how to increase my faith that developing bodhichitta is the best way to help others?”
“For one thing, it is not an either/or, in the sense that if we are not trying to help any individuals now as well, it is hard to say we are working to help everyone!
The way I see it is that we already want to help others and we already want to improve ourselves (largely so we can be of more use to others.) If we increase both those wishes — wanting to help more and more people until we want to help everybody, and wanting to improve ourselves more and more until there is no further room for improvement – we have bodhichitta. So the seed is there, we just have to keep watering it.”
A couple of days later, I had Nelson in his usual spot on my/his meditation cushion, and decided to respond to this comment further:
“Hello again, your comment came into my mind this morning when I was meditating with my small cat Nelson purring next to me. He looks to me for protection, love and food, which I try my best to provide him, but I’d like to scoop him out of samsara altogether. To do that — and to help all my current nearest and dearest — I need to generate bodhichitta because I need to become a Buddha with the necessary power. To develop bodhichitta, I need love and compassion for all living beings at least equal to what I have for Nelson. He is an example showing me what I need. So even to help our nearest and dearest, we need bodhichitta, let alone to help everyone else.”
With our thoughts, we create our world
We can choose how we think. We may think our thoughts rule us, but that is only if we are not exerting control over our own mind. We can learn to think big, enlightened thoughts instead of small, selfish ones. We can ignore the inappropriate attention that leads to all our baseless, disturbing delusions, and choose to think realistic things that will liberate and enlighten us. With our thoughts, we create our world, to summarize what Buddha taught us. We are what we think. There is no Nelson outside my experience of Nelson. There is no world outside my experience of the world. So I am in the process of creating a better me, a better world, and a better Nelson, for his and everyone’s sake.
Buddha’s Enlightenment Day is a good time to remember all this and renew our intention to follow in kind Buddha Shakyamuni’s footsteps by developing compassion and wisdom.
Over to you — your comments are warmly invited below. What does Buddha’s Enlightenment Day mean to you?
A short video of Nelson tuning into Buddha’s blessings on my/his meditation cushion:
Update: Nelson died at 5:30am on Saturday April 14th, 2012, in my arms in front of my shrine, after spending the night lying on my chest. So many kind people have been praying for him, including Geshe Kelsang, for which I am very grateful, and I’m sure Nelson is too. May he and all animal beings, human beings, and others quickly be released permanently from suffering and mistaken appearances, and find enlightened bliss.
We probably all worry unduly sometimes, which makes us all worrywarts according to the dictionary. Here are some more practical solutions for this unpleasant state of mind.
Stop paying inappropriate attention
Drag your thoughts away from your troubles… by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it. ~Mark Twain
You’re not inherently a nervous Nellie, no one is. As mentioned earlier, all habits are made to be broken. Delusions, including their inappropriate attention, are not intrinsic parts of mind, they are just thoughts that arise and have no ability to exist if we don’t think them. And they are certainly not us.
A lot of you may have come across this quote somewhere ‘cos it’s a good one:
An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies, & ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, & truth.” The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”
If we are not careful, our thoughts think us rather than the other way round. Shirley Austin on Facebook says: “The first fault of delusion identified by Shantideva is “delusion give us no choice”. This is so true. Once we start to follow a delusion we become hooked and it is hard to let go of it. It is so juicy!” We need constructively to replace inappropriate attention with appropriate attention as soon as we notice we are beginning to dwell on our problems. Take away the oxygen of inappropriate attention, and worry (a type of delusion) will quickly expire. Adam Head agreed we need to be creative: “Move forward, make something new, make something happen! This creative/constructive energy doesn’t really tolerate worry and hand-wringing, where the mind can repeatedly chundle on and on about stuff without realising how futile it is.”
It is very helpful to understand how inappropriate attention is running the show. Look and see what you’re focusing on — I bet you are accentuating the negative and editing out the positive. Start doing the opposite, see what happens. Buddha said that with our thoughts we create our world. It is so true.
Feeling responsible for others without the guilt
Feeling solely responsible for another’s welfare makes us worry if we’re not careful, and as mentioned above can wrap us up in guilt, which is an even heavier mantle to remove. Superior intention is the noble, compassionate mind that feels entirely responsible for every living being throughout space and time, but the person who possesses it has no worry at all in their minds. So where are we going wrong?!
One reason I decided to write these articles is because of late I have felt more immediately or physically responsible for the life, health and safety of dependents than usual. Perhaps because I am out of practice at that, I find details strangely worrying when normally I never worry about much at all. This is proving useful because I thought I had the whole not worrying thing under control, but clearly I have more work to do! I enjoy the challenge of looking at what is going on in the mind when I worry and getting to the bottom of it once and for all. (This sort of reminds me of when I first got interested in Buddhism – after a few months I was quite sure I had equanimity down as I thought I liked everyone equally, “Hey, this is really EASY guys!!” Then a boyfriend materialized and I realized my attachment had just been on the back burner for a year.)
I’m finding this whole process of being responsible for various animals, starting with Ralph and Nelson, good training for being a Bodhisattva and even a Buddha. I can view each one of them as an example of all the animals and other living beings in the world who need help, and train in taking on the personal responsibility while freeing the mind from worry or guilt. I meditate on superior intention regularly, and now is my chance to apply it, without turning into an over-protective mommy while I’m at it! This situation is helping me see the difference between compassion and worry, and how compassion itself is not a sad mind, although worrying and guilt are horrible.
Parents of human children (especially in these challenging times), I take my hat off to you – you surely have worry and guilt licked to stay sane for even a day?!
Here is one random example of a run-away train of thought traveling from worry to guilt and back again. “What can I worry about today?! Oh, I know, Nelson’s bad cheek, it is more swollen than ever. Oh, so now that reminds me that I can worry (again) about how I’ve already brought his vet’s appointment forward by four days, but maybe he won’t be alright for another two whole days? It is Saturday morning and they are not open til Monday. Oh, that reminds me, I have to CATCH him! I’m dreading it, he will hate being in lock-down all night. Or maybe I won’t be able to catch him?! But I need to because of his cheek. And what is actually wrong with his cheek? It looks scary. Cancer? A mysterious abscess that might go to his brain?!” Then comes the guilt: “Oh I’m not doing enough for him! I’m so useless at this!” Then more variations on a theme — fraught scenarios complete with everything that could go wrong. etc
Just one illustration today amongst gazillions in the minds of living beings: trains of undesirable thoughts that we have inadvertently boarded, which are taking us from Worry Station right through to Panic Stations! We have to get off!!
Stop worrying right into the future
We allow our thoughts to run riot and way into the future. Chewing over the various possibilities of something that hasn’t even happened is the cause of much of our anxiety and stress.
You know, tomorrow really does take care of itself. We’ll have all day tomorrow to focus on tomorrow’s problems. We can be more like Charlie Brown:
I’ve developed a new philosophy… I only dread one day at a time.
He has a point. We worry far more if we worry ahead. John Newton (not sure who he is, but I like this quote) says:
We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it. But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.
What were you worrying about a year ago today?! Can you even begin to remember?! Will you have the worry you have today a year hence? I find these thoughts useful too.
We can make a plan, for sure, for example to get the cat to the vet; but then, in the inimitable words of my brother, something can be time-consuming without being mind-consuming. Make a plan, be prepared to see it change, and meantime stop thinking about that plan and just live. The best is if we can keep our thoughts focused on today or even this hour or even just now, having the very best experience and creating the very best intention in every moment. Then the future tends to take care of itself!
I don’t know who he is either, but Oliver Wendell Holmes said, and I agree:
What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
But just to get a bit philosophical on you for a moment: actually, there are no past things and future things, only pasts of things and futures of things. That sense we have of linear time stretching behind and ahead like train tracks is an illusion. All (functioning) things are necessarily present. This means that “our past” and “our future” are entirely dependent on our present state of mind, rather as a rubber band being twisted in one spot alters the entire rubber band. Past, present and future are only imputed by mind and have no existence from their own side. We cannot point to where the past ends and the present begins. So we can take it moment by moment and go with the flow. I hope to write more on this, a favorite subject, in another article. See Ocean of Nectar for the explanation of the emptiness of time.
I never thought poop could make me so happy. It was just a small piece the size of a dime, but it was enough for me to hope that Ralph could eliminate the four days of build-up inside him. Because of what it represented, I wasn’t even disgusted when I picked it up to feel its consistency; to me it was almost beautiful! I have never wanted someone to poop more. When Ralph finally let it all come out at the vets’ office the next day, it was high-fives all around, and he felt our approval and purred even more loudly than usual.
That teaching on emptiness, (that beauty is in the eye of the beholder!), has been just one of many I’ve had this roller coaster week while caring for Ralph, who entered our lives out of nowhere on Sunday, promptly stole our hearts, then left us again last night. This six-week-old kitten had paralysis in his back legs and walked by dragging himself along with his front legs. He was left outside my house. He was a combination of utter sweetness and utter helplessness, and as a result loved by everyone who had the privilege of knowing him, including me, his lucky adoptive mom.
I want to tell Ralph’s story, as he may have been one tiny unique being but he came to represent for me these past four days, well, a lot! All suffering beings, and the truth of Dharma. I want to share him and I also want this story to remember him by. I’m not saying this story is unusual. It is not. Ralph’s story is like all our stories, but for some reason I learnt so much from him that I could fill a book. The intensity of our experiences can make four days seem like four months – showing the emptiness of time. There is also life before Ralph and life after him, and they do not feel the same at all. It has been a roller coaster, as I said, but I do not regret a single moment.
It was Sunday when F found him dirty, abandoned, and dragging his legs outside our house — he could have been dying for all we knew, and only the Emergency vet was open, so I took him there on the way back from dropping F and J at the airport.
They are clearly practiced in the art of showing no emotion as they see one tragedy after another roll in through their sliding doors. When I arrived, the steely receptionist called out “Good Sam”, and they came to collect him and asked me to sign some papers. This is when I discovered I had two rather unpleasant alternatives: (A) Hand him over to them (hence the Good Samaritan finding a stray) and risk never seeing him again even though I said I wanted to adopt him later, especially as it was quite clear they thought he should be euthanized; (B) Spend lots of money — $100 just for the first exam and then whatever was needed after that in a particularly expensive and sterile vet place where I’d still have to leave him on his own. I mulled over option A for about 2 seconds, enough time to see a couple of big eyes looking reproachfully at me through the cat carrier. Then I decided on a whole ‘nother option (C), and took him home to take his chances overnight.
How Ralph got around.
Worrying in the waiting room at All Cats Hospital, Largo
(I will keep this in the present tense as this is how I wrote it waiting at the family vet.)
His admission papers show him with the same last name as mine, he is now officially my son and I his mom! But I’m a hopeless mom and trainee Bodhisattva, I’m just preoccupied with worry right now. I’m waiting for results from his blood tests and x-rays. I know the “pros” are already thinking it’s kinder to euthanize him because of his paralysis and will try and persuade me of same. But that’s no way good enough of a reason.
His distended belly is full of poop, his bladder is huge, and he drags himself along with his little kitten paws, but he loves any touch, even being bathed, even being prodded, even having his bladder squirted, even having his paws clamped to test for pain. He loves being placed in his cat carrier. In fact he loves anything that involves anyone paying him any attention at all. He purrs so loudly that no vet has yet managed to hear his heartbeat. He is very much liking being alive and I intend to keep him that way as long as I can.
But I’m leaving for England in one week and what are we to do with him long-term? He needs his bladder expressing regularly and goodness knows what else with his stools. His inability to walk seems the least of his problems right now. J, bless her heart, will not let this little guy die, and has been spending hours on the internet figuring out his future care and calling everyone she knows for a home for him. If she can’t find one, and if he is not infectious to her other cats, I suspect she will have him herself as she can’t help her kind heart. She is also fund-raising and bank-rolling the not inconsiderable costs of these vet visits, which is just as well as he has cost more than my monthly income already.
What an emotional roller coaster it is to look after a sick animal. I’ve been anxious about him despite all my best training! Why is his stomach so distended? Will he survive the night? Is his breathing too shallow and fast? Is he breathing at all? (waking up the poor little guy to check!) Why is he shivering? And, scariest of all, will I ever learn to express his bladder so as actually to get enough pee out of him?! So far I haven’t managed it. I am too scared to squeeze too hard in case I bruise his bladder. The vets tell me I’ll get the hang of it but I wish I had the hang of it already!
How I stopped worrying in the waiting room
In fact, two things are going on:
(1) I think all my problems will be solved if only I can get the pee out of him/he controls his own bowel movements/he eats and drinks properly/he can put some weight on his back legs. Of course, even if all that happened, there will still be plenty more things to worry about!
(2) When I see any other cats at the moment (a) they appear enormous, like giants and (b) I think they are so lucky to have four functioning legs even if they don’t seem to know it.
Isn’t it like that with all our problems?! (1) Whatever difficulty we encounter with relationships, jobs, money, sickness, helpless dependents, etcetera etcetera, it can fill our mind and we think that if only this was out of the way we could be sooo happy. And (2) when we see someone else without that problem, we think they are so lucky, although they are oblivious to their good fortune!
Samsara is impossible, really. So many intractable problems in just one 2lb sentient being despite the best efforts of J, F, me, the vets, the nurses, and a growing number of well-wishers. Geshe Kelsang often says that temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough. Samsara is the cycle of impure life projected by our ignorance of self-grasping and self-cherishing. The seven sufferings of samsara are like waves on an ocean; they’ll never stop rolling in on their own. We need to recognize this so that we can stop worrying about one problem at a time ( = literally endless worry) and turn our attention to removing the causes of all our own and others’ suffering. That is the spiritual path. So, for example, while I do the very best I can for Ralph, worrying about it at the same time is missing the point.
Easier said than done, but it is something trainee Bodhisattvas train in – helping others practically to the best of our ability but also remembering to put a lot of energy into generating renunciation, bodhichitta and wisdom, using these very karmic appearances that arise as fuel.
For example, I admit I never saw myself squirting a cat! But that is the appearance to my mind, so I accept it. While I’m doing that I can with one part of my mind attend completely to Ralph’s need to empty his bladder, and with another part I can think about how wonderful it would be to squeeze the samsara out of everyone. Same physical action, hugely more meaning and hope. There are, after all, a gazillion Ralphs not getting the attention they need right now.
You can hear him purring if you listen.
When I feel particularly worried about him, faith helps hugely. We can mentally hand things over to the enlightened beings when they seem too much for us. Ralph and I did Medicine Buddha puja out loud earlier and loved it, everything seemed okay, everything was okay.
I also did Medicine Buddha puja dedicated to the even more helpless creatures who have sadly had to die in the saving of Ralph, namely his fleas, possibly his worms if he has any. What a horrible dilemma, there is no way in samsara to avoid killing completely despite our very best intentions. But Venerable Geshe Kelsang said 25 years ago at Madhyamaka Centre that we could do Medicine Buddha puja every month with strong faith in Medicine Guru and strong compassion for all the animals and insects whom we have inadvertently killed, and Medicine Guru would be able to take them to his Pure Land.
Ralph again slept overnight like a baby — which he is — high on the chest of drawers in my room with an unobstructed view of the Buddhas on the shrine and of me on my bed.
(Meanwhile the young feral hissy cat outside, Korska, has developed a slight limp – what to do about him?! Keep feeding him and let him take his chances? Catch him earlier than I was going to (in August) and take him to animal services for the full treatment? Difficult, as I’m going away soon and don’t want him to be convalescing on his own, and I don’t him to run away as I have plans to slowly tame him (well, I can try!). Next to little Ralph, his problems don’t seem as great as they did; but I will have to get to him later. I really admire people who take responsibility for many feral animals).
Ralph had fun at the vets today. He even managed to crawl down a nurse’s buxom cleavage when we were momentarily distracted so that just his little orange back legs were sticking out. Everyone at the vet’s has gone gaga over him. In fact, he has now managed to win over, by my calculations, F and J who found him and where he is going next week, me, six neighbors who now knock on my door to visit him, two vets, four nurses, the man in the bank, and basically everyone else who has crossed his path. All kittens are cute, and yes of course I am biased, but he is a fuzzy ball of concentrated cuteness. Maybe he needs to be extra-friendly and open as he knows his life depends on people loving him. He also has a lot of merit, or good karma, as people have offered to help pay for him, and he is not going to go homeless even though he is always going to need care. He has a bevy of supporters watching the videos I send of him from my iPhone; he could have a You Tube channel of his own. He seems to bring out the best in everyone.
He has had another very happy day. Tuesday was also another day of many teachings from my little emanation. I will save these for other articles so I can finish his story.
4pm: I prayed to Tara in the car just now coming home from the vet as Ralph was lethargic, breathing faster, and, most ominously, not purring when I reached over to touch him, which was a first. We’ll do Medicine Buddha together out loud. Dissolve our worries away in the bliss and emptiness of Buddha’s mind. He loves doing pujas, which is just as well.
Worrying in the waiting room at Emergency Services
6:30pm: When I came into the Emergency vet just now, they yelled out “Triage! Respiratory distress! Front desk!” and off Ralph was whisked into ICU, with no time for goodbyes. I feel helpless again. His rapid breathing in the car was not the heat because it progressively got worse through the afternoon and it looks like he must have pneumonia or FIP. Will I have to take him home and help him die? F***, you have to be brave. Right now I don’t feel cut out for this. Why am I such a wimp? Of course I can and will do it, but I’m feeling some despair right now. All I can see is his big limpid trusting eyes. He thinks I am his mommy, he trusts me. Why can’t I protect him? How can I not feel that I am totally letting him down? I’d be a frigging hopeless vet. How on earth are people so brave?
There is a picture here in the waiting room next to the picture of Golda the Retriever (deceased), with the words:
“Even in our sleep pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom, through the awful grace of God.”
I really get that right now even though I’m a Buddhist and know the holy beings are not doing this. But it is a situation of forced self-improvement.
Right now I don’t know what will happen. The uncertainty is awful. And one of the six sufferings of samsara so why expect anything else, but I don’t like it.
Just now the receptionist was taking J’s credit card details and I was willing her to hurry up as they were not going to give Ralph his x-rays until they had them. Right in the middle someone phoned for directions and it seemed to take an age: “Turn left down…, no, left, yes, past the blah blah blah… and then half a mile… yes half a mile…blah blah blah”. I was impatiently thinking, “For goodness sake, hurry up, don’t you know Ralph is waiting?” when I heard the receptionist say, “And how many were hit by the car?”
That jerked me back into perspective.
His last morning. I can see in retrospect that he is beginning to breathe faster, and is more agitated than before; though I didn’t notice it at the time.
How I stopped worrying in the waiting room (part two)
Compassion and emptiness: It is not unkind to dissolve people away into emptiness. When I saw Ralph’s chest rising and falling so fast, and J (on the phone from NJ) and I timed it to discover he was breathing at a rate of 91 breaths per minute instead of the normal 30, we knew I had to get going fast to the ER. I felt sick to the stomach, but J calmed me with three magic words: “Don’t freak out.”
The best way not to freak out at times of crisis is to remember emptiness, if you can. All this scary stuff is mistaken appearance, it is like a dream (or nightmare), it is not really happening. But if our wisdom is not strong yet, we might think that this is callous – dissolving away Ralph and his suffering when in fact he is still really suffering, how can that work?! Perhaps we prefer to seize on method practices at this time, but I can see in my experience that we need both, because while my compassion was for a real inherently existent kitten experiencing real pain and distress, this mind had no solution in it, and so it caused more pain for me and less ability to stay present and positive for him. Remembering emptiness in no way diminishes the compassion. There is no contradiction between compassion and emptiness; in fact they are two sides of the same coin. Within the mind of compassion, we need the solution, and this is the wisdom realizing the emptiness of inherent existence of persons and phenomena. We need to dissolve our loved ones into emptiness for them to be able to arise in a pure, blissful form. Otherwise they remain stuck and our hearts remain uselessly broken.
Now he really wants to escape samsara and get to the Pure Land: “Let me out!”
Watching someone you love gasping for breath is not high up on anyone’s wish list. Samsara sucks. Samsara sucks for everyone. But luckily samsara is not real.
This is the union of method (renunciation and compassion) and wisdom.
The power of prayer: I did not like leaving Ralph alone with the brisk uniformed people at the Emergency Hospital for even an hour, yet I knew I was about to leave him alone forever as he couldn’t stay. All that I could do was pray. But luckily prayers are very powerful when our compassion and faith are strong, which is often the case at times of crises, especially if we’ve been training in refuge.
Ralph’s little body was filling up fast with more and more fluid, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
I kept stroking him and speaking loving encouraging thoughts of his future to him, breathed in his suffering as if there was no tomorrow, and blew mantras into his ears. He purred a lot and kneaded my face with his paws, whilst at the same time opening and shutting his little pink mouth trying hard to breathe and meowing at me for help. He could hold a gaze better than any other cat I’ve known. Sometimes in the past few days I’d do something else for a while, but when I looked back at him he was still staring at me. He died in my arms, looking at me with those beautiful eyes that then gently drooped shut. He died very peacefully and his last thoughts, I pray, were ones of love and trust. I touched him firmly on the head with Medicine Buddha sadhana, his favorite, to help his subtle consciousness leave his body through his crown.
I’ll never forget the feel of his tiny body in my hands as his eyes closed for the last time and then as I held him doing prayers and meditation for the next couple of hours. It looked like Ralph had just fallen asleep in my arms, but his consciousness was wending its way through the bardo to his next life, and he was no longer there. Death is so natural and so weird at the same time. People in India and Tibet meditated in the charnel grounds… and I discovered there is nothing quite like meditating on impermanence while holding a body in your hands.
JP told me a few days ago that when she was with her husband just after he was killed, she wanted to hold every part of his body. Her friend was sitting with her and said quietly: “That arm is not J. That leg is not J….” It was an intense, she said, but timely teaching.
An hour before Ralph died he pooped again all on his own, and looked at me for approval. It did feel like an offering, but this time it also made me sad. Although all I had wanted two days earlier was for him to be free of his chronic constipation and be able to poop on his own, having control over his own bowels was now no longer enough. And he didn’t even know this. The waves of samsara keep rolling in.
It is 2.15 right now, and Ralph had a vet’s appointment at this exact time for the free daily laser therapy they were generously offering him to bring back his legs. But my tiny dancer doesn’t have that body any more. I pray and imagine that he is dancing with the Dakinis instead, a beautiful, smiling Daka with red hair and luminous green-blue eyes.